October 04, 2018
(Originally published on Industry Week)
Language Strategy is the laser-sharp phrasing of a corporate apology statement, or the product name that resonates.
A brand strategist and a language strategist walk into a bar. The owner approaches them and asks for their opinion on a business challenge he’s having: he recently launched a new event called Appy Hour which he thinks is aptly named because the appetizers are all half price (along with good deals on drinks, too). But foot traffic is low. He’s surprised nobody’s showing up for Appy Hour.
The brand strategist leans forward on her barstool and starts asking questions. “Do the appetizers you’re serving have a common theme? Is there a cultural truth you’re playing into with this event? What’s the feeling you’re looking to evoke in people? Have you considered aligning with some sort of cause or partnering with another local business? What do you want your bar to stand for on a bigger level?”
The owner marvels at these provocations, and then turns to the language strategist, expectantly. The language strategist leans in and says, “Those are all really important questions. I would just ask you one thing: when you say ‘appy hour’ what are they really hearing? For example, it might sound to them as if it’s just a cute way to abbreviate ‘happy’; or it might sound to them like it’s a bunch of people drinking beer and using smartphone apps together; or it might just not be resonating, for a host of reasons.
Both strategists are thinking analytically about the consumer. They’re both thinking about how the bar’s interests can best align with its customers’ interests. But each focuses their attention on something different. And that’s because the two are different.
Where brand strategy is a directional path – a way to get from here to there – language strategy is the exact GPS coordinates. Where brand strategy is a plot summary, language strategy is a script. Where brand strategy is about the entire cultural ecosystem surrounding a consumer, language strategy is about their ear, gut, and brain; what are they hearing, how do they react to the message on an instinctive level, and what effect can we create when we shift the message ever so slightly.
Language strategy comes to life in many ways for a brand. It’s the laser-sharp choice of words in a corporate apology statement. It’s the product name that deeply resonates with you when you’re standing in the aisle. It’s knowing exactly what to say – and not to say – to different consumer groups around the country, or the world, based on regional nuances. And sometimes it’s a shift in the way an entire category talks about itself – like “used car” to “certified pre-owned vehicle.”
Today, in a marketing culture driven by short-form, shareable content – not to mention short attention spans – it all comes down to using the right words. Regardless of your brand strategy, the language you choose increasingly has the power to make or break your brand.
As language strategists, we’re constantly thinking about this make or break nuance. And we see this nuance matter most when brands are dealing with four types of challenge areas: the complex, the crowded, the controversial, and the crucial.
Complex: When you need to tell a complicated story in a simple way
Cryptocurrencies are in and out of the news about as often as they go up and down in value a lot. This is very likely due to the complexity of how they’re created and how they operate on an open market. We as consumers often shy away from that which we don’t understand, and the way the early-to-market companies like B-Money and Bit Gold told the cryptocurrency story didn’t help. Language such as “online currencies with ledgers secured by encryption” only confused the concept further, deterring potential consumers from wanting to learn more – let alone investing. Language Strategy could have helped identify the right way to talk about a concept that was so novel, so involved. Since then, market leader Bitcoin has certainly simplified the language, talking about itself as being “an innovative payment network and a new kind of money.” But does that language truly capture the value their audience is looking for? Or do they instead need to hear that Bitcoin is an investment tool? Does “payment network” make it feel too much like Venmo or PayPal? Bitcoin may very well be ripe for language strategy.
Crowded: When you need to differentiate
Black Friday is one of the most crowded shopping days of the year. And brands often run campaigns celebrating the “holiday.” Back in 2015, REI took a big risk and went against the crowd with its “opt outside” campaign. Certainly the idea was strongly tethered to the brand strategy – making the outdoors more accessible through its co-op price model. But there was a chance that the message itself – the words – wouldn’t land the right way with consumers and the media. Would it come off as holier-than-thou? Would people hear it simply as another version of consumerism, i.e. buy gear in order to “opt outside”? REI needed to convey the right intentions to entice consumers while not inciting fellow brands. The language of the campaign, and the PR around it, are examples of language strategy that works.
Controversial: When you need to shift perceptions or change opinion
You might recall the “Bic for Her” incident of 2012. The pen manufacturer decided to release a line of pens geared specifically towards female consumers and decided to name the product “Bic for Her.” While many brands, rightly or wrongly, create products geared specifically towards female consumers, this one unleashed a wave of shock and awe across the Internet and major media outlets, with many calling out Bic for what they perceived as an anti-feminist agenda. All because of the name – three little three-letter words that should not have been strung together. Bic’s late apology did little to appease angry customers. And it didn’t have to go that way. All brands face public scrutiny for missteps, but language strategy can help to deliver the right message at the right time to avoid potential landmines and quell concerns before they escalate.
Crucial: Whenever the message really, really matters
Recently, cities across the country have been introduced to electric scooters for adult commuters. Many city councils strongly object to the added congestion, and few can agree on how to regulate the newcomers. This poses a real challenge for brands. They’re faced with positive, growing consumer interest, coupled with negative, mounting urban criticism. It’s crucial that their language and tone strike the right balance. One particular brand on the rise, Bird, addresses the issue on its homepage to a certain extent: “we work closely with cities to help make transportation better…” This is a start; it’s a good message. But it’s one that could be made even better if they were to address concerns head-on and outline a clear plan for how they intend to help.
Any language strategist will tell you: a good brand acknowledges concerns, but a great brand cites shared goals and develops a plan.
Michael Maslansky is CEO of maslansky + partners, a communications consultancy that has advised Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, PepsiCo and the National Manufacturer’s Association, among many others.